Synopses & Reviews
The Story of Cassandra
Cassandra was the young and beautiful daughter of Priam, the last king of Troy. Apollo bestowed upon Cassandra a special gift--the ability to see the future. But when she refused his favors, he twisted her gift with a curse, so no one would believe her prophecies.
Apocalypse Got You Down?
Charge Into the Future with Cassandra
By George Thabault
At the vulnerable age of nineteen, I read a small paperback book called The Limits to Growth. No other book would influence my life so greatly, though I could barely understand its message at the time . . .
So begins the tale of Alan AtKisson, one of Chelsea Green's newest and most refreshing voices on the American environmental scene. Here at Chelsea Green, we think of Alan as one of those extraordinarily lively characters you might chance upon in a caf© in a far-away city, who regales you with fascinating stories, enchanting, witty songs, and a hard-earned and definitely inspiring outlook on life. If you've had such a caf© experience, you know it can change your life. At the very least it will stay forever in your mind.
What's the Problem?
In a way, what Alan has done with his first book, Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World, is to bring the entire American environmental movement into his caf©, and there, between stories of terrifying bus rides in Malaysia and mystic moments at Big Sur, he outlines our predicament.
FACT #1: The most important ecological systems around the globe are deteriorating rapidly, perhaps too rapidly to prevent their collapse.
FACT #2: Many thoughtful researchers and scientists have been toiling for years to observe and report on this disintegration of the intricate web of natural systems that have supported us for so long. (Even optimists tremble and grieve at the news.)
FACT #3: Paralyzed by the scope of the issues and a growing weight of hopelessness, frustration, and despair, many people have shut down. They reject the distress signals that Nature is sending us through our scientists. They don't want to hear any more bad news about the environment. "Please change the channel," they say.
That, in a nutshell, is what Alan deftly calls "Cassandra's Dilemma." Greek legend has it that beautiful Cassandra, youngest daughter of the last king of Troy, was endowed by the gods with the gift of seeing the future. And then, because she spurned the gods, her gift was cruelly twisted--no one would ever believe her prophecies.
Today's alarming feedback from Nature about greenhouse gases, toxic waste, species destruction, or ocean pollution often prompts this ancient reaction of denial and disbelief. The dilemma is clear--we can see an immense global catastrophe coming, but we are powerless to do much of anything about it. We can't even get people who might do something about it to really hear us.
"Our brains are very good at filtering out unpleasant and inconvenient information," notes Alan. "We humans are wired to respond to immediate, obvious threats--like bears at the cave door--rather than abstract signals like graphs of atmospheric CO2 that simply do not look threatening," he notes.
"The World's responses to signals it does get from Nature generally come too late, or only partially, or not at all. What we've got here is a pair of dance partners who don't do the same steps, don't feel the same rhythm, don't listen to each other, and have a growing number of bruised and bloody toes," he writes, citing Gregory Bateson's summary of the issue: "The major problems in the world are the result of the differences between the way nature works and the way people think."
Who's to Blame?
In a view point that might sound cavalier to some environmentalists, Alan says it's the design and function of systems, rather than the actions of individuals, that is the central problem we face.
"Huge and impersonal forces are at work that are bigger than any individual actor could possibly be responsible for, whatever their motivation," AtKisson declares. "The World is literally out of control. The problem is not the individual . . . unless you're a wildlife poacher who formerly worked for Greenpeace."
AtKisson focuses on the complex systems of how "Nature" gives us signals, or feedback, on its health, and how the "World" does or does not respond. And he does it without getting lost in the arcane language of systems dynamics. Here's a tasty example from his analysis of the decline of the North Atlantic cod fishery:
Although it might be therapeutic to blame Nature for not responding adequately to humanity's growing, changing needs--by, say, learning to grow fish faster--it's hardly helpful. We're the ones with consciousness, after all. Nature is going to do the rhumba, no matter what we do. So it is incumbent upon us to learn the music, the rhythm, the steps. In dance-floor terms, Nature leads. We have to learn to anticipate her next move.
So who, or what, is to blame? "The problem is not easily attributable to technology, affluence, poverty, population increases, sprawl, economics, human greed, human evil, or human ignorance," AtKisson decides. "The problem originates in all of the above . . . and while the problem is not our fault, we are obligated to solve it," he declares.
Where Do We Turn?
Part II of the book deals with the very important question: Where do we go from here in the face of all this bad news and everyone's refusal to listen? Toward sustainability is AtKisson's fervent hope.
Sustainability is for AtKisson a coming journey for everyone, from the individual homeowner to the CEO of a transnational corporation. Alan summarizes the allure of sustainability this way: "To prevent global collapse, we need something that is both visionary and highly profitable, something that can appeal to both the ardent altruist and the hardened venture capitalist. We need a source of hope that is also a business opportunity, a hot investment that is extremely idealistic. We need something that will change our higher natures and attract our baser instincts, coaxing us into the game of transformation without polarizing society or fomenting revolution. We need something that has not been seen since humans first began plowing up dirt, building skyscrapers, messing around with atmospheric chemistry. We need something that has the power to command a lifetime of allegiance, even though it does not exist now in practice, and may never really exist except in theory. We need something we can hardly begin to describe in tangible, concrete terms."
Alan carefully walks the reader through the minimum conditions necessary for a sustainable economy and society, and supports his arguments with real-world examples in the chapter, "Proof of the Possible." He avoids the anti-business rant of some environmentalists. Indeed, for AtKisson, businesspeople are among the people who must help avert catastrophe. But he challenges business people to understand the difference between "growth" and "development," and why the world needs less growth and more development.
Sustainability and environmentalism are very different things, says AtKisson. "Activism to protect Nature from the ravages of the economy is different from working to redesign the economy itself," he writes.
"We continue to need a strong (in fact stronger) environmentalism, setting boundaries and protecting society from some people's unfortunate tendency to try to get away with profiteering at Nature's and society's expense."
"But for environmentalism's NO to work, there must also be sustainability's YES," AtKisson declares. Sustainability encourages and provides incentives, is about transforming the economy, promotes a vision of the future, creates possibilities, and can be a political win-win situation. "Sustainability is an ideal, like truth, justice, freedom, democracy, and love. We never completely reach our ideals, but we strive toward them--and striving toward them is what defines us as a culture," he writes.
AtKisson believes that, in the end, society will become sustainable because it has to. "We'll become sustainable at some level of comfort or discomfort, by choice or by Nature's forcing hand. It is far more desirable to attain it by choice, and that means studying it, planning for it, measuring our progress toward it," he writes.
This piece was written for Chelsea Green's newspaper The Junction by reviewer George Thabault, who is a freelance writer from Colchester, Vermont, a Burlington Free Press correspondent, and former communications director for The Center for a New American Dream (www.newdream.org). He and his family also sell fruits and veggies at the Burlington Farmers' Market.
The world has gone beyond the limits to growth, putting us in the dangerous stage of "overshoot." The sky is, literally, falling, and we don't know what to do.
Alan AtKisson takes a surprisingly bright view of the apocalypse, and makes it seem like a transformation we might just survive. He uses the Greek myth of "Cassandra's Dilemma" -- Cassandra had the ability, or some would say curse, of being able to prophecy the future -- to work us through and beyond the grim predictions of the computer models that provided the foundations for two seminal works in the environmental movement, The Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits. He makes even the arcane language of system dynamics understandable to the technical neophyte.
In chapter 6, "Longing for the End of the World, " AtKisson brings us into direct confrontation with TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It), and shows that it might not be so bad after all. This startling appraisal provides a lead-in to the possibilities of a sustainable future, explaining the prospect in a way that will silence critics who have assailed the fundamental concept of limits to growth since the warning was raised back in 1972.
The book ends with some rousingly optimistic scenarios for global transformation. AtKisson, who is a consultant, facilitator, and musician, knows that his audience wants to leave the theater humming a tune, and he gives them three to choose from. This is more than lip service. This is genuine imagination and hope.
For anyone who has followed the halting and fitful progress of the environmental movement, this book is a must read, and the perfect start to a new millennium. Bubbly as champagne, fresh as garden mesclun,AtKisson has created an entertaining, believable, and tasty look at our future. Anyone who is fed up with hearing only about our problems -- holes in the ozone, paradigm shifts, and the greenhouse effect -- will take heart from this book.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -229) and index.
About the Author
Alan AtKisson is a true citizen of the world, whose work has led him to crisscross the globe. He has been the executive editor of In Context magazine, senior fellow with the policy institute Redefining Progress, and co-founder and chair of Sustainable Seattle, a collaborative project to design model-city plans for America's hippest town. He is presently president of AtKisson & Associates, a consulting firm focused on sustainable development and innovation. He lives in New York City.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgments A Note On Language ProloguePart 1: Cassandra's Dilemma
Chapter 1: When Worlds Collide
The astonishing tale of a small book called The Limits to Growth, and the mystery of how a computer model called "World3" shook the foundations of the real World, and then was promptly forgotten.
Chapter 2: A Brief History of Cassandra's Dilemma
Wherein we trace the development of humanity's growing awareness of certain very dangerous global trends, and how it came to pass that the warnings about these were mostly ignored, leading up to the tragic story of a political prince named Al Gore who shied away from his own gift of prophecy.
Chapter 3: In the Gallery of Global Trends
Wherein the author plays the role of tour guide in an art gallery, in which the exhibits are various charts and graphs and measurements, all in dire need of creative explanation.
Chapter 4: It's the System
Wherein the author introduces the arcane language of system dynamics, and proceeds to dispel confusion and guilt in the globally aware reader by explaining the true origin of Cassandra's Dilemma.
Chapter 5: Cassandra's Laughter, Cassandra's Tears
In order to talk the reader through the range of feelings that often befall those with an intensified awareness of likely global calamity, the author tells something of his personal story, touching on serious emotional issues and recounting an amusing anecdote about cows.
Chapter 6: Armageddon, Utopia, or Both?
Reflections on the curious phenomenon of "longing for the end of the World," an inspiring consultation with two practitioners of the dismal science of Economics, and in between an introduction to a new computer model that suggests that the difference between Armageddon and Utopia might be a matter of perspective.Part 2: Reinventing the World
Chapter 7: The Future in a Word
Wherein we introduce, finally, after much beating around the bush, the "S" word and explain it in ways that will (possibly) silence its critics once and for all while rallying people to its flag.
Chapter 8: The Proof of the Possible
Wherein the reader is offered examples from far and wide of beautiful initiatives to reinvent the World, or at least certain small pieces of it, and presented with the story of a volunteer group in a rainy city that helped, quite by accident, to accelerate an international movement in the use of charts and graphs.
Chapter 9: The Innovation diffusion Game
Monkeys, amoebas, citrus, and a primer on "innovation diffusion theory," rather playfully reinterpreted by the author, together with the presentation of a simple equation that explains how to change the World.
Chapter 10: Accelerate to Survive
Wherein we summarize the preceding nine chapters, draw three enormously optimistic conclusions, and ponder the genuinely bright prospects for a speedy global transformation revealed in the bleakest assessment of our circumstances.
Coda Notes Sources Index